DOJ charges Chinese nationals in cyber espionage campaign

The Trump administration on Thursday charged two hackers linked to China’s intelligence and security agency for engaging in a decade-long cyber espionage campaign against dozens of companies in the United States and around the world.

Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinTrump attacks Sessions: A 'total disaster' and 'an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama' Mueller rejoins DC law firm Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it MORE and other top officials unveiled the charges at the Justice Department, part of an unprecedented international effort coordinated with the United Kingdom and other governments to call China out for theft of trade secrets.  

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The hackers, said to be part of the Chinese hacking group APT10, allegedly compromised companies across many industries in the U.S. and at least 11 other countries by targeting managed service providers, which hold intellectual property and other sensitive business information.

The hackers are also accused of using spearphishing campaigns to target U.S. government agencies, including NASA's Goddard Space Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In another major development, officials also accused China of violating a landmark 2015 agreement between then-President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping meant to halt cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property.

“The activity alleged in this indictment violates the commitment that China made to members of the international community,” Rosenstein said in remarks Thursday morning. "We want China to cease its illegal cyber activities and honor its commitment to the international community."

Officials said Thursday that the cyberattacks were committed in "association" with China's Ministry of State Security. 

The hackers are being charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusions, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft.

The charges represent the latest effort by the administration to thwart what officials describe as a pervasive and persistent effort by Beijing to conduct economic espionage and steal U.S. trade secrets. The developments are sure to ratchet up tensions with China, which have fluctuated for several months as a result of the administration’s actions on trade. 

The hackers, named Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong, allegedly engaged in a global hacking campaign against government and corporate targets since 2006 that sought intellectual property, confidential business information and other sensitive data.

They are accused of targeting dozens of companies in various industries, including aviation, satellite and maritime technology, banking and finance, telecommunications and computer electronics, computer processor technology, healthcare, biotechnology, and oil and gas. The indictment does not name the hackers' victims. 

FBI Director Christopher Wray described the information they sought as highly valuable to U.S. firms.

“The kind of information that we are talking about here is confidential information, and by definition, valuable — very valuable — information for these companies,” Wray said.

The indictment was filed by prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York and unsealed Thursday. The hackers are believed to be in China, with which the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty, and are likely out of reach of U.S. officials as a result. 

The Trump administration has increasingly sought to publicly call China out for what it views as unacceptable behavior in recent months. 

Vice President Pence set the tone for the administration’s increasingly aggressive posture toward China during an address in early October, accusing Beijing of engaging in a host of malign activities, from unfair trade practices to cyberattacks to meddling in the U.S. midterm elections.

Under Trump, the Justice Department has revealed a slew of indictments linked to alleged Chinese economic spying, including revealing in October that an intelligence officer working for China’s Ministry of State Security had been extradited to the United States to face charges of conspiracy to steal trade secrets from major U.S. firms in the aviation and aerospace industries.

The U.S. worked in concert with other foreign governments including the United Kingdom to call China out for intellectual property theft and economic espionage on Thursday by denouncing the activities of APT10, a hacking group well known among security professionals that has been tied to Beijing’s Ministry of State Security. 

Updated at 11:47 a.m.